I saw a recent post on PDN's Photo Feed about a fashion blog (Jezebel) that considered a photo shoot in Vietnam featured by Marie Claire (a fashion magazine for women) to be in poor taste, since the prices of the dresses being modeled, and shown of the magazine's pages, were far more than Vietnam's average annual per capita income.
So right off the bat, here's what I think. First of all, I'd be ecstatic if I was a photographer involved in similar photo shoots. The photographer of the Vietnam feature for Marie Claire is Raphael Mazzucco, and I'd pay money to be in his shoes...yes, I would. Beautiful women, beautiful locations...and photography. That can't be a job, can it?
Secondly, these photo shoots inject a lot of needed money into the local economies...the photo shoots require accommodations, transport, scouts, guides, local equipment, food supply, etc. We're talking a lot of money for just a few days.
Having said that, I also happen to think that the above photograph featuring a highly-paid model wearing expensive clothes, and a local Vietnamese woman sifting rice ought to ruffle our conscience. The juxtaposing of the two women in the same scene makes me uncomfortable. I'm certain that the Vietnamese woman was paid for her time...but the scene still doesn't really sit well with me. The cost of the model's dress is probably worth what the Vietnamese woman makes a year or two, and it's just a shame that there's nothing anyone can do about it.
So idealistically-speaking, while I agree with the Jezebel blog's socially-minded editors, I'd still be delighted to be the photographer on such photo shoots. Would I have photographed the same scene? Probably....but I would have made sure that the Vietnamese woman was paid for her help. But no matter what...it would have bothered me a little bit.
Whenever I travel for photography, whether on my own or on my photo expeditions, I (like many of you) face similar situations on a daily basis. I'm conscious that I carry gear worth months, if not years, of income for many people in the countries I visit, and that never fails to bother me. We all deal with this in our own way, and I hope the way I do is appropriate.